KeyBank Scouting Report: Portland Timbers at Columbus Crew - July 7, 2013

Frederico Higuain's creative attacking force helps spark Crew offense

Federico Higuain, Columbus Crew

Photo Credit: 
(USA Today Sports Images)

For the first time this season, the Portland Timbers take on the Columbus Crew as they travel to the Crew Stadium on Sunday afternoon (2pm PT, ROOT SPORTS, 750 AM The Game / La Pantera 940). Find out everything you need to know about the opposition.

A brief history…
Having been part of MLS since its inception, Columbus has proved to be a successful franchise with one MLS Cup (2008), three Supporters’ Shields (2004, 2008, 2009) and one Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup (2002) victory. They have represented the league in the CONCACAF Champions League and regularly attract crowds to their soccer-specific Crew Stadium in Ohio.

Owned by Clark Hunt, son of the much-lauded Lamar, the team is very well-run off the pitch and they boast a passionate supporter base. They have also had some MLS legends play for them, including Brian McBride, Guillermo Barros Schelotto, Jeff Cunningham, John Harkes, Brad Friedel, Kyle Martino, and Frankie Hejduk, who is still involved with the club.

How did they fare last season?
It turned out to be a frustrating campaign as Columbus finished just a single point behind Houston Dynamo in the Eastern Conference and thus missed out on the playoffs. And they quickly ran out of luck in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup after losing 2-1 to the Dayton Dutch Lions. It was a season that hinted at them achieving a lot more as they twice went on six-game unbeaten runs, but they fell short at important times.

Who have they brought in for this season?
The two big signings were Argentine playmaker Matias Sanchez and Ghanaian forward Dominic Oduro, who are both potential game-winners. In defense, the arrivals of league veteran Tyson Wahl and Brazilian Glauber added a new dimension to their roster, while the promotion of Homegrown Player Wil Trapp and the pick-up of Robbie Findlay in the MLS SuperDraft provided them with more strength in depth.

Following their disappointing end to last season, Columbus opted to shake up their roster. Leaving the club were goalkeeper Will Hesmer, defenders Sebastian Miranda, Carlos Mendes, Julius James and Rich Balchan, midfielders Dilly Duka, Chris Birchall and Cole Grossman, and strikers Milovan Mirosevic and Emilio Renteria. Now they have a far younger, more dynamic squad.

How have they done so far this year?
After 18 games played in the league, Columbus’ record stands at 5-8-5, which leaves them sitting in eighth place in the Eastern Conference. On average, they win 1.11 points per game (compared to 1.76 for the Timbers), while they have scored 22 goals and conceded 23 times. But beneath the stats lies an inconsistency that they have yet to address.

So far, Columbus has been unable to put back-to-back wins together and they rarely punish teams when on top in games. With the exception of the 3-0 victories over Chivas USA and D.C. United, there have been few times when they have dominated throughout games. And luck has evaded them recently as they have lost their last three games to Chicago Fire, Sporting Kansas City, and, in midweek to LA Galaxy.

KEY MEN

Head coach: Robert Warzycha
A former Poland international, Warzycha enjoyed a long playing career that took in spells in his homeland, in Hungary, in England, and then in the United States when he signed for Columbus in 1996. After more than 150 appearances for the club, he moved into coaching – acting as an assistant with Columbus for five years before landing the head coaches job in 2009. His biggest achievement so far as coach of the team was winning the Supporters’ Shield in his first season.

Star Player: Federico Higuain
Undoubtedly, one of the best players in MLS right now, this Argentinean striker (above) has been a revelation for Columbus since signing last year. The 28-year-old, who is the older brother of Real Madrid’s Gonzalo, is experienced from his time in his homeland as well as a spell in Turkey with Besiktas and he uses that experience well. Clever with his first touch, aware of what is happening around him, and precise with his passing, Higuain is a player that brings his team to the next level.

One To Watch: Matias Sanchez
One of the stand-out players of the 2007 FIFA Under 20 World Cup, where he helped Argentina triumph, this tricky midfielder decided to try his luck in MLS this season. Still only 25, his best years are ahead of him, but, already, he has showed a knack of pulling the strings in tight games with his movement, passing, and his eye for goal. He missed a lot of games earlier in the year, but Sanchez is now starting to prove his worth.

TACTICAL VIEW

What can the Timbers expect?
Normally set up in a 4-4-1-1 formation, Columbus relies heavily on Higuain to be their main man just behind a lone striker. Lately, Oduro, who has excelled since arriving from Chicago Fire, has filled that position, while Jairo Arrieta can also play there. Those three players can be game-winners, but if they are marked closely, the team does not have many other players who can step up and provide the goals needed.

Defensively, Columbus prides itself on being able to match up to most teams in the league. But their midfield does not always provide enough cover nor does it always create as many goalscoring opportunities as it should. At times, they can be a little bit predictable with Sanchez eager to get on the ball and link play, while Higuain and Oduro are the two main targets when they shift the ball forward and try to attack at speed.

Who are their main threats?
Columbus has been hit hard by an ACL injury picked up by winger Eddie Gaven, who is so important to their attacking play and had registered three assists in 10 league games. But they can still turn to the likes of Higuain, Sanchez, Oduro and Arrieta to act as their creative sparks and lethal finishers. The partnership of Higuain and Arrieta has showed a lot of promise, while Oduro can play centrally or out wide with Sanchez floating behind them.

At set pieces, Columbus is one of the most dangerous teams in the league with Higuain’s deliveries often proving to be so accurate, while defenders Wahl, Chad Marshall, Josh Williams and Danny O’Rourke can win their aerial battles and connect with those crosses. Of course, they cannot solely rely on dead-ball situations, so the speed with which they move the ball is key as Oduro, Ben Speas and Finlay can get in behind opposition defenders.

Where are they most vulnerable?
Midfield has proved to be a real problem area for Columbus in recent seasons – arguably since Brian Carroll departed in 2011 – and it is somewhere that they need to strengthen in. O’Rouke has been filling in alongside Sanchez, but Tony Tchani is best suited to operating as the defensive lynchpin that every team needs to cope against top-class opposition. Yet, the Timbers should dominate in this area, if they can get their passing game going.

In defense, Columbus has been fortunate that Andy Gruenebaum has proved to be a solid goalkeeper ever since Hesmer retired. In front of him, Marshall is a superb center back, while Wahl and Williams have been consistently excellent this season. But Glauber, who once played for Manchester City in the English Premier League, is out injured and they have missed him following a bright start to his MLS career.

Previous Meetings in MLS

2011: May 21 – Portland Timbers 1-0 Columbus Crew
2011: July 23 – Columbus Crew 1-0 Portland Timbers
2012: May 5 – Portland Timbers 0-0 Columbus Crew

Record vs Columbus Crew: 1-1-1

Did You Know?
Konrad Warzycha became only the second son in MLS to play for a team coached by his father (Robert), following on from when Michael Bradley played for the MetroStars when his father Bob was in charge.

Gareth Maher is a contributing writer to PortlandTimbers.com. He is a frequent writer about soccer for the Irish Daily Mail in Dublin as well as ESPNFC.com.